PORTSMOUTH, NH — The first questions every observer will ask when NewHampshire polling places close their doors around 8 tonight and clerkstabulate the results of the Democratic and Republican presidentialprimaries will be the essential inquiries: Who won and by how much?
In a media age when even the most complicated stories are reduced tosimple headlines, the news of a Barack Obama landslide on the Democraticside or a John McCain win on the Republican side will dominate earlyreports from the state.
But the real story from New Hampshire will be more nuanced and, perhaps,significant than the identification of a pair of winners and a lot oflosers.
Here are some questions that voters and viewers can ask as the returnsare reported:
Will the frontrunners finish first, and by how much?
How a candidate fares in the expectations game may matter more than the actual results.Pre-primary polls predicted a big Obama win, while McCain was expectedto prevail in a closer race on the Republican side. If Obama’s margin ofvictory over New York Senator Hillary Clinton is narrow, it may be readas something of a stumble for him and a comeback for Clinton. IfClinton were to win the Democratic primary, she would enjoy a monumental”Dewey Defeats Truman” moment–while Obama would be devastated.Similarly, if former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney were to overtakeMcCain on the GOP side, it would be a hugely important win for Romneyover a foe who was at the close of the contest portrayed as very nearlyunbeatable.
Will McCain win the way he did in 2000?
The Arizona senator is not merely competing with current expectations, but also with memories of ahistoric win in New Hampshire. Eight years ago, McCain prevailed with anear majority–49 percent–over four serious rivals. No one expectshim to win that sort of victory this year against an even more crowdedfield. But if he falls far short of his past mark, there will beinevitable speculation about McCain’s declining appeal.
Who will New Hampshire voters recommend for vice president?
The Granite State’s primary ballot allows not merely for presidential voting but for vice presidential voting. New Hampshire electors generally write in thenames of their favorite candidates, with a penchant toward makingpresidential contenders over as vice-presidential prospects. Often,voters write in the names of candidates of the other party. Thus, thevice presidential voting becomes a measure of the cross-party appeal ofpopular contenders.
Will Ron Paul beat a frontrunner again?
Libertarian Republican Paulfinished ahead of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in last week’sIowa caucuses, but Giuliani did not make much of an effort there. Not soNew Hampshire, where all the Republican candidates have waged campaigns.If Paul, an anti-war Texas congressman whose enthusiastic supportershave flooded the state, beats Giuliani, former Illinois Senator FredThompson or former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, then it will beharder for television networks to exclude him from debates–as theydid Sunday in New Hampshire.
Who drops out?
Republican Thompson seems to have had a hard timemaintaining interest in the race. Similarly, Democrat Bill Richardson isrunning far behind and waging a campaign that does not quite seem readyfor prime time. Particularly weak finishes in New Hampshire couldinspire both men to exit before they must spend more money and morecredibility on losing races–as did Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd andDelaware Senator Joe Biden after their out-of-the-running finishes inIowa. It is tougher to see Democrats Clinton or Edwards exiting afterfinishing behind in New Hampshire, though there has been speculationthat Edwards will have a hard time carrying on his populist campaign iffails to rival the popular support secured by Obama and Clinton. Thereis even a buzz about Clinton–who seemed to choke back tears during anemotional campaign appearance on the day before the primary. But that’sunlikely considering the large amount of money her campaign still has inthe bank and the fact that she continues to lead in many national polls.
Who gets fired?
If the Clinton campaign is to go forward, it will haveto be retooled. The candidate won’t be fired and, frankly, she does nothave to change that much. She’s actually been good on her feet in NewHampshire. (The whole “tearing-up” thing is a silly diversion. Everyserious candidate here is tired and, frankly, she’s managing better thansome of her opponents.) Nor can “First-Man” Bill Clinton be ditched,although he is likely to be in more of a backseat role, as hiscontribution in New Hampshire has been negligible. So watch for campaignaides to be let go and new players–can anyone say “Carville”?–brought on board. It’s the same with the Romney campaign on theRepublican side. There is going to need to be a “new Mitt” fast. Andthat’s going to require new people taking places at the side of theformer frontrunner.
Who exits New Hampshire fastest and where do they go?
Candidates know that the best way to put a poor New Hampshire primary finish behind them is to shift attention elsewhere. After finishing second after adifficult 1992 Democratic presidential primary campaign in the state,Bill Clinton immediately declared himself “The Comeback Kid” and leftthe state before the night was done to campaign on friendlier turf inthe south. Former First Lady Clinton may tonight be similarly inclinedto get out of Manchester quick. If she loses badly, watch for her tohead for Michigan, a state where she is positioned to secure an easyprimary win next week over anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich. Similarly,Romney will be in a hurry to get elsewhere fast if he is badly beaten byMcCain–bet on Michigan, a state where his father served as governorand where aides say he may erect his “firewall.” And watch for Huckabeeto head for South Carolina, which has an early primary and a lot moreevangelical voters than the Granite State.
Will Fox News Declare Mitt Romney a winner even if he loses?
The Republican-friendly network’s taste for the favorites of the Republicanleadership in Washington has hardly been a secret. Even after mostanalysts said Romney took a beating in the Republican debate Foxproduced on Sunday–with all the leading candidates except Paul andCalifornia Congressman Duncan Hunter–Fox commentators were hailingthe former governor’s “strong” performance.
What state is the next New Hampshire?
As the candidates disperse across the country, the race becomes less focused. Will Nevada, where the powerful Culinary Workers Union is expected to endorse Obama and perhaps tip the caucuses to the Illinois senator, be taken off thetable? Will Clinton try to play a race with Dennis Kucinich in Michigan–which most Democratic contenders skipped–as a serious contest?Will she risk embarrassment there at the hands of Kucinich? Will sheskip South Carolina and cede the state to Obama, whose support amongAfrican-American voters there is surging? Does she then target Florida’sJanuary 29 primary as her “firewall” fight? Do McCain and Romney decideto duke it out in Michigan? Do they give South Carolina to Huckabee? Inshort order, New Hampshire will be old news. Another state, or severalstates, will suddenly be “definitional,” as what unsettled racescontinue for both party nominations.
Will more New Hampshire voters cast Democratic or Republican primary ballots?
New Hampshire voters can choose which primary in which to participate.Independents switch from one party to another. Historically, NewHampshire has been a Republican state. But it has been trendingDemocratic–electing a Democratic governor in 2002 and voting forDemocrat John Kerry for president in 2004. As recently as 2000, whenboth parties had seriously contested nomination contests, 236,802Republicans cast primary ballots while just 154,639 Democrats voted inthe state’s first-in-the-nation primary. (Of those Democratic primaryvoters, more than 3,000 were cast as write-ins for McCain.) Ifsignificantly more voters participate in the Democratic primary thisyear–after dramatically more Democrats than Republicans caucused inIowa last week–it will be another indication that no matter whom theparty nominates Democratic fortunes are on the rise in 2008.